If You're Going to Criticize Arminianism, Get it Right

I think this topic is worth re-visiting. Now, as a caveat, we have been informed that, in light of his interactions with some Arminians, pastor Mark Dever no longer espouses wholesale his former convictions regarding Arminianism -- thank the Lord. His brief article regarding Arminians, and messages at the Together for the Gospel conferences, attest to such. This post, therefore, serves those who may still read his review of a book on Arminius on-line and need to be better informed. After all, that review is frozen on-line until the End, and all that remains is a contemporary context to its contents.

Calvinist Southern Baptist pastor Mark Dever, having reviewed Richard A. Muller's 1991 book on Arminius, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, makes an intriguing comment in his concluding remarks about Arminian theology:
Personally, as a pastor with Reformed [he means Calvinistic -- the two are not synonymous] convictions, I found this book to be a telling intellectual journey, suggestive of the unwitting capitulations [surrendering] made by our Arminian brothers and sisters to secularism itself [which is a stinging rebuke]. At the end of the day, in a consistent Arminianism, the understanding of God and of humanity must be seen to be "rational" by the world around [is God irrational?]. Therefore I fear that their notions of God and of humanity can rise no further than the surrounding unbelieving culture. As an evangelical pastor in postmodern America, this is my fear. I pray that I am wrong. (emphases added)
Pastor Dever is, flatly, wrong. Who are these "Arminian brothers and sisters" who have surrendered "to secularism itself"? Is pastor Mark intimating the bland theological liberalism of some denominations? Who insists that such are Arminian? Is he alluding to the near-Pelagian or semi-Pelagianism contextually inherent within Joel Osteen-like congregations? (By the way, such is also rife within some Southern Baptist churches, as well.) Such are not Arminian. To whomever pastor Mark refers, clearly, those persons have abandoned the gospel for the social gospel, which is not a gospel at all. The notions of those alleged "rational Arminians," basing their beliefs solely in accordance with reason or logic, are no better than the "surrounding unbelieving culture," and Arminians stand with pastor Dever in this critique. But such people are not Arminians.

One almost concludes that pastor Mark is complaining about nineteenth-century Universalist-Unitarians or Deists instead of Arminians in his 1991 critical review. If the "Arminian" concept of God is no better than the unbelieving culture, then how can he consider us to be genuine "brothers and sisters" in Christ? Pastor Mark is, no doubt, aware that Calvinists in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries are, statistically speaking, in the stark minority. Certainly, he is not willing to relegate God's so-called unconditionally elect to that small of a company (i.e., mainly Calvinists). He is, hopefully, not someone who advocates the same false antic that Charles Spurgeon so infamously quipped: Calvinism is the Gospel, and nothing else. We have no doubt that pastor Dever disagrees with Spurgeon on that statement; or, at the very least, we hope as much. 

Arminius believes that theology and one's knowledge of God should be practical.1 He finds no comfort in holding to Calvinism's speculative theology, whether in relegating too much to mystery or in advocating outright antinomy. But Arminius' (and the Arminian's) understanding of our sovereign God and of fallen humanity rises far above the surrounding unbelieving culture, and to suggest otherwise is entirely offensive and baseless. When an Arminian in the Reformed tradition encounters such conclusions, as the one given by pastor Mark, he or she wonders greatly to what degree such persons have read from Arminian scholars. Dr. Roger Olson, in his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, notes:
One thing should be absolutely clear from . . . examples of Arminian accounts of divine sovereignty and providence -- the common accusation that Arminianism lacks a strong or high view of God's sovereignty is false. Every classical Arminian shares with every classical Calvinist the belief that God is in charge of and governs the entire creation, and will powerfully and perhaps unilaterally bring about the consummation of his plan. Arminians demur from Calvinism's divine determinism because it cannot avoid making God the author of sin and evil. When the Calvinist responds that Calvinism avoids that, the Arminian asks about the origin of the very first impulse to evil in creation.2
The troublesome notion of that latter question is confirmed by R.C. Sproul, Sr., who simply but respectfully answers, "I don't know." However, his son, R.C. Sproul, Jr., in his overtly supralapsarian book Almighty over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God, is confident that the origin of the very first impulse to evil comes from God -- God actually is the Author of sin and evil, and such a "truth" should not be shunned (read a response by Paul Copan).

Perhaps Sproul Jr. is merely following logically where his Calvinist ideology inevitably or consistently leads. Using pastor Mark's initial conclusive statement regarding Arminianism, then, let me suggest, regarding our Calvinist brothers and sisters, that I, therefore, "fear that their notions of God and of humanity can rise no further than the surrounding deterministic conceptions of fourth- and third-century BC Greek philosophers." Is that not about as fair to Calvinists and Calvinism as is pastor Dever's initial comments in his review of Arminius and his Arminian theology?


The spiritual journey which pastor Mark notes in Muller's book regarding the theology of Arminius is "suggestive of the unwitting capitulations made by our Arminian brothers and sisters to secularism itself." In layman's terms, pastor Dever means that Arminianism inherently tends toward a surrender to secular culture, even if unknowingly so. What is secularism? It denotes non-religious, materialistic ideology. How is Arminianism a surrender to secularism? Such certainly is not accomplished by focusing on God's love for humanity, for then Scripture itself can be charged as being secularistic. Is Arminianism's alleged "surrender to secularism" evident in a perceived naïveté in fallen mortals?

Without being too speculative of the intent of pastor Mark's remarks, I do not want to evade a possible observation that has been made by many in the Calvinist camp concerning decisional regeneration, a concept historically held by some in the very broadly "Arminian" camp. I have spoken with a Calvinist professor on campus at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, on this very topic. Decisional regeneration is the view that all a person need do in order to be saved is to "make a decision for Christ" (a phrase heard in many, many Southern Baptist and Pentecostal circles). In this scenario, the Holy Spirit is merely nudging a person to make the decision to believe in Christ Jesus; and if done, then that individual will be regenerated.

This conception has direct ties to Charles Finney's initial semi-Pelagianism, which states that a person's will has the inherent ability to seek God. Hence, if a person takes one step toward God, then God will take the necessary steps to ensure his or her salvation. A famous sentiment in this tradition states the following: If there were a hundred steps to God, He will take the ninety-nine steps toward the sinner if he or she will take the initial one step toward Him. There is another prevalent idea in this judgment: God has cast a vote for the salvation of the sinner; the devil has cast his vote for the damnation of the sinner; the sinner must cast "the deciding vote." These rather sloppy concepts, however, are not Arminianism proper. Moreover, the conflation of the two concepts with Arminianism baffles the Arminian. 

Because all people are "dead in sins" (Eph. 2:1), i.e., separated from the life of God and aspects of a spiritual nature (1 Cor. 2:6-14), the operative grace of God through the activity of the Holy Spirit is absolutely imperative if a person is going to trust in Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:3-8; 6:44-45, 65; 12:32; 16:8-11; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). This is what Arminianism teaches. Arminius writes: "Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace."3 Arminius and Arminians insist that, due to total, radical depravity and inability, God must grace an individual to even begin the first mark of seeking God in Christ. (link) What we deny is exhaustive determinism and the irresistibility of God's grace. Arminius writes:
I confess that the mind of ... a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so plead the cause of Grace, as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.4
Arminius' main concern is to avoid making God the author (the cause and originator) of sin or evil. Either God permits humanity a measure of freedom when committing evil, not by divine necessity and decree but by one's own inclinations, or God is behind and is the instigator of all evil. William den Boer comments:
Arminius appears to stand in the tradition of those who in the sixteenth century protested against the results of a causally deterministic system where the zeal for God's sovereignty, the sola gratia and the assurance of faith resulted, as they saw it, in God's authorship of sin. He distinguishes himself by his own approach, and joins himself with certain theological developments in his time. As his orthodox contemporaries, he shows great interest in the mutual relationship of Christology and predestination, but consistently with his own emphasis on the absolute primacy of God's justice as foundation of theology.5
Such summations can hardly be admitted as secularistic. An "unbelieving culture" would never make such statements regarding any viable concept of God. As a matter of fact, an unbelieving culture uses fallen reason in order to substantiate a disbelief in God, not to understand God and humanity better, as is erroneously critiqued by pastor Mark with regard to Arminians and Arminianism.

Reading various commentaries and remarks regarding Arminius, the Remonstrants, and subsequent Arminian followers from many Calvinists opened my eyes to the absolute necessity that all honest students of Church history, and even of Scripture itself, must employ the hard work of reading primary sources for oneself. By doing this, with increasing practice, both Calvinists and Arminians will better keep one another accountable when presenting the respective views of their opponents. 

__________

1 James Arminius, "On the Manner in Which Theology Must Be Taught," in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:319-320. 

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 135.

3 Arminius, 2:700.

4 Ibid., 2:700-01.

5 William den Boer, "Jacobus Arminius: Theologian of God's Two-Fold Love," in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe, eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2009), 49.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.